In one of his weekly newsletters to the South African public, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that the government is relying on scientific, economic and empirical data to make decisions and to formulate regulations around its coronavirus response. Unfortunately, the vaping industry has not been so lucky. The industry has borne the brunt of government lockdown regulations, despite a peer reviewed study by Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, a renowned cardiologist and harm reduction expert and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finding that there is no clinical evidence that proves vaping can exacerbate symptoms for the coronavirus (Covid-19).
With government having dug its heels and ignoring all available evidence relating to vaping during the lockdown, it would be wise for the President and his government to rely on science, economic and empirical data in treating vaping in the future.
Let us look at the science. Vaping has emerged as a viable tool in tobacco harm reduction and countries such as the UK have embraced Electronic Vaping Products (EVPs) as part of their harm reduction strategies. This is after reputable institutions such as Public Health England and Royal College of Physicians found conclusive evidence that vaping is 95 % less harmful than smoking. Professor Gerry Stimson, emeritus professor at Imperial College London, recently stated that “Tobacco harm reduction is good public health. It starts with the people who matter-—people who smoke, and people who have switched to a chosen alternative —and it fosters and encourages change. Tobacco harm reduction is not antithetical to tobacco control; it should be part of it,”. Vaping presents an opportunity for the South African government to meet its target of reducing tobacco use by 30% in 2025 as stated in the draft National Strategic Plan on Non-Communicable Diseases.
On the economic front, the vaping industry consists of mainly small and medium enterprises. The South African market is in the earliest stage of the EVP development, having generated R1.16 billion in revenue in 2017, according to a Canback EIU study conducted on the vaping industry in 2018. The EVP market before the lockdown had created 4,000 jobs in the wholesale and retail sectors. The same study had forecast future growth of EVPs to generate additional 10,000 jobs between 2017 and 2027. These numbers are likely to be significantly lower after the lockdown, due to draconian lockdown regulations. However, favourable regulation of the vaping industry going forward can ensure that the industry contributes more to employment and the fiscus.
During an interview in May, Professor Abdool Karim stated that South Africa is fortunate to have politicians who value and want scientific input on which to base their decisions regarding the fight against Covid-19. The same should resonate with government and legislators, who should value the available empirical data regarding vaping and its contribution to tobacco harm reduction. Legislators should follow the best approach when it comes to vaping, and that means embracing vaping as part of the country’s harm reduction strategies.
Professor David Sweanor of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, stated at a Global Forum for Nicotine webinar that consumers in many countries, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Japan, have shown that they move to alternatives to cigarettes when they get an option to. He went further to say that if people are provided access to a broad range of low-risk alternatives to cigarettes, if they get information on relative risk, and if they are nudged towards those options through intelligent, risk-proportionate regulation, we will fundamentally change the course of public health history, Vaping provides that opportunity and should be fully embraced by the South African government along with appropriate regulation that will seek to promote its growth.